This cultural collision

Or: Danger Middlebrow

In May 1987, I attended a cultural event at the Coburg twin drive-in. Billed as ‘Automania’, it comprised a compilation of car chases from Mad Max, Terminator, et al., followed by short films by experimental filmmakers like Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, ending with a ‘surprise’ new release. There was indeed a surprise, but not the one the intellectual writer/film buff organisers had anticipated. The local Coburgians, having turned out in force for the car chases, reacted with baffled rage to the experimental films, staging a near-riot and besieging the projection box, so that the artistic portion of the evening ceased almost immediately, and only Whoopi Goldberg’s soporific comedy Burglar restored calm.

I was reminded of this cultural collision, after thirty years or so, by the recent to and fro in the literary world over the term ‘middlebrow’. Always a provocative term, it has exploded in its small way again, sparked by Ivor Indyk’s complaint back in September that there is a ‘cult of the middlebrow’ now holding sway over the literary world, especially in relation to the giving of prizes, and a number of rejoinders and rebuttals since. Indyk’s view, one shared by a variety of concerned neo-Leavisites around the world, is that prizes may be ‘the last bastion, in this world, for the literary recognition that is withheld by the marketplace,’ but all too often ‘go to authors who are neither challenging or innovative’.

Add to this the notion that judges are reluctant to reward challenging books because ‘they can hear the whine of popular disappointment insinuating itself into their brains,’ and you have the essence of the highbrow complaint about the middlebrow, handed down the years from Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury fastness more or less intact. The answer, apparently, is to abolish prizes and give the money to the deserving poor, always assuming that they have recently written a difficult and challenging work.

In Woolf’s case, there was an element of almost luxuriant snobbery that is missing today, and it is well worth revisiting the essay she wrote partly to define her attitude to the ‘brow’ issue, but mainly to display at length her contempt for the ghastly middlebrow oik JB Priestley. She concocts a hilarious kind of camaraderie between the highbrow and the lowbrow – both honest creatures: ‘I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor.’

A hundred years ago, the brow question was inextricably mixed up with class: Woolf came from the lower-upper class (or the upper-upper-middle – these distinctions are lost to time but had real force then), and grew up just before the great cataclysms that destroyed the rentier class. So her visceral hatred for the ‘betwixt and between’ petit bourgeois ‘middlebrow’ made sense. If you think it no longer exists, it is there as plain as day, slightly altered, in the Things Bogans Like phenomenon – stepped down a stratum or two, to demonise working-class people who have acquired wealth and yet have the temerity not to try and emulate the urban bourgeoisie.

What is striking is the kind of writer Woolf chooses as an exemplar and fellow highbrow.  ‘Shakespeare, Dickens, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Scott, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Hardy or Henry James.’ Apart from Henry James, none of them are especially unpopular, difficult, or challenging: quite the reverse. Woolf arrived as one of the first ‘highbrows’ to begin redefining the term to mean not someone dedicated to their art, but someone whose work is difficult, innovative, comprehensible only through higher education, finer sensibility, and sheer application. ‘Highbrow’ became work that started off difficult and stayed difficult: Beckett, Eliot, Pound, Woolf herself, and Joyce most famously.

Good old-fashioned irony came to the rescue for a while in the late twentieth century, with the intelligentsia taking an amused interest in ‘low’ culture, most notably with Julie Burchill and Hugo Young’s Modern Review and its tagline ‘low culture for highbrows’, aimed, as Tara Brabazon put it, at ‘ex-Face readers who, through the fault of gravity, could no longer wear spandex leggings’. Trying to take mass culture seriously and yet keep one eyebrow raised, it collapsed into a kind of proto-Thatcherite cultural porridge, and we were back, essentially, to square one.

The Edwardian usage is the one we now labour under in Australia – except that everyone tries very hard to avoid using the word and, except ironically, its evil twin, ‘lowbrow’. For example, in writing about Tim Winton, Brigid Rooney says that ‘his novels orient themselves to a new “middlebrow” readership, to those seeking a quality reading experience, but unwilling or unable to invest the time required for more arcane, difficult or inaccessible texts.’ No mention of highbrow there, and no-one in Australia would dream of describing a whole class of people as lowbrow, as Woolf did. This is only partly because the whole discussion of class in Australia has departed so far from reality that 92 per cent of us think we are either working class or middle class, and only 2 per cent say upper class (or ‘rich’).

Alternatively, since the ‘brow’ concept is the only immediately apprehensible one on offer, others try to rehabilitate it, as Beth Driscoll did in The New Literary Middlebrow, in which she sought to discuss the concept ‘in a way that raises the level of cultural debating beyond gatekeeping and culture wars. . . in a full, detailed account of middlebrow culture that acknowledges it as a distinctive cultural formation with both a history and a cultural presence.’

There was even a two-day conference, at St Catherine University in Minnesota, on ‘Inventing the Middlebrow’, but lest the middlebrows find this attention a little cloying, there is always some reviving condescension on hand, as when Driscoll reviewed three novels in The Sydney Review of Books, by Susan Johnson, Stephanie Bishop and Antonia Hayes. The general tenor of the piece was one of book clubs, GoodReads, middle-class women, middlebrow, domestic and recreational concerns, with mollifying asides: ‘At the same time, other aspects of the novels, such as their formal techniques, work against the middlebrow and keep open the potential for these books to be drawn into literary circuits of reception.’

The novelists concerned were not mollified, however, knowing full well that no matter how serious and dedicated they might be, the word ‘middlebrow’ attaching particularly to their gender wipes them from history. Christos Tsiolkas, tromping cheerfully all over the boundaries between middlebrow and ‘literary’, and becoming wildly popular in the process, may escape their fate, but if Virginia Woolf were alive now she would doubtless ask, with an arched eyebrow: ‘So, does anyone still read JB Priestley?’

So who could usefully take on the highbrow mantle in Australia? Indyk especially bemoans the lack of award reward for poets, and they surely are the highbrow class par excellence: difficult; with academic training, for the most part; sometimes an ironic engagement with popular culture; and a near-total separation from the middlebrow universe.

The definition fits so exactly that it is invisible. Indyk has, without meaning to, erased it. There is no mantle. People who insist on using the word middlebrow, leached of all meaning, might as well be wearing spats, or a corset, or flares. The writers who would thus be denied prizes are at least making comfortable, contemporary clothes: give them their due, I say.

Peter Kenneally

Peter Kenneally is a librarian, writer and reviewer, and poet. He has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, and Island, among others, as well as in the 2010 Best Australian Poems. In 2005 his suite of poems Memento Mori was selected for the anthology of the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and in 2007 his piece ‘a streetlamp goes out when I walk under it’ was commended in the New Media section of the same prize.

More by Peter Kenneally ›

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  1. Burglar! I loved that film. Bobcat Goldthwait ftw! Also: that 92% working/middle class stat is hilarious.

    I think Indyk has a point that there should be some way to nurture “unpopular”, “difficult”, “challenging” art.

    I think he was reacting to the apparent trend whereby popularity (which seems to always get measured in terms of units shifted) becomes the only measure of whether a piece of art is worth preserving, and any attempt to argue for other merits on artistic bases runs the risk of ostracising the person making those arguments.

    My take on this is yep, sure, let’s not say that we shouldn’t HAVE any middlebrow, or whatever you want to call it, but let’s be careful to make sure that that kind of art doesn’t displace other “non-popular” art. Or to put it another way – on what basis do the authors with the sales bemoan their lack of prizes?

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